There's no doubt about it, the trade of Troy Tulowitzki hurts. For Rockies fans it's like chiseling one of the faces off of Mount Rushmore. It feels almost profane to see him wear another uniform--and hitting massive home runs, like he did in his first game with the Blue Jays. Those are our dingers, damn it. You can't have them.
But Jeff Bridich didn't care about the pain of Rockies fans, or the nausea of watching another team reap the rewards from having the best shortstop in the game. He pulled the trigger anyway. Because trading Tulowitzki now, in the summer of 2015, was the absolute best time to do it. Let's examine the reasons why.
1. Even with a healthy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies weren't contending--and the outlook for 2016 and later was no better
There has been a frequent mantra repeated by Rockies fans for the past three or four years: if the Rockies get healthy seasons from Tulo and Carlos Gonzalez, they can contend. It's no wonder the Rockies have dwelt in fourth or fifth place of the NL West for the past four plus years; their stars are always hurt. No team could contend when their best players only play half seasons or less.
Well, Tulo and CarGo have played healthy all year, and the Rockies are still a last-place team. They got the magical confluence of health for their stars and still can't hang with the Dodgers or the Giants.
It's tempting to then shift the injury excuse elsewhere. Colorado lost Corey Dickerson and Justin Morneau, Tyler Matzek and Jordan Lyles. Yet another snake-bit season. 2016 will be better. Et cetera.
Those excuses can't fly anymore. Injuries happen to every team in the league. It takes quality depth to overcome them; the Rockies have depth in some areas, and are thin in others. And we all know where that depth is both the most crucial and currently the thinnest: at starting pitcher.
2. The next contending Rockies team will be centered around starting pitching that is currently in the minors
The current Rockies rotation is a mess. The loss of Lyles to a foot injury and Matzek to the yips definitely hurt, but let's not forget, Kyle Kendrick was tabbed as the Opening Day starter before either of those guys went down. This rotation wasn't going to lead to a contender even with an above-average offense.
And it wouldn't lead the Rockies to a contending 2016 either. Sure, maybe Jon Gray will be a solid big league pitcher by 2016; maybe he'll even be dominant. Maybe Tyler Chatwood will come back from Tommy John surgery and be useful. Maybe Eddie Butler will figure out how to throw strikes and miss bats. Maybe Matzek will figure out whatever is wrong with him and Lyles will come back as a serviceable number three. Maybe Chad Bettis will continue his encouraging development ... assuming his current elbow pain isn't too nefarious.
Needless to say, that's too many maybes. The odds of a strong 2016 rotation coming together with pieces currently in the system are remote. And then when the 2016 season starts collapsing just like the 2013 and 2014 and 2015 seasons, the Rockies would be back where they started.
The Rockies need to stockpile arms, and they have to reach their primes at roughly the same time. They had a few good pieces in-house before the Tulo trade; guys like Gray, Butler, Bettis, Lyles, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, etc. But they aren't enough. At least one or two (or three or four) of those won't do much for the team; pitcher attrition is too brutal. So how do you acquire the arms needed to build a rotation that competes with the Dodgers and the Giants? The draft is a place to start, and international signings help way down the line, but they probably won't help with this wave of pitching. Colorado would always be a day late and a dollar short, and all of a sudden it's 2019 and the Rockies still haven't sniffed .500.
In order to get the high-upside pitching that can lead to a Rockies contender, it has to come through trade (supplementing the draft and int'l signs, of course). But teams don't just give away those arms. You have to give up really valuable assets to acquire really valuable assets. Tulo was the Rockies' most valuable asset. Now Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro, and (to a lesser extent) Jesus Tinoco join the pile of early-twenties Rockies pitchers who should reach their primes at roughly the same time. It's a numbers game with pitching; you can't just pin your hopes on a couple of guys.
3. Troy Tulowitzki is entering his decline phase
Tulo likely has a bunch of good years left in him. He is currently 30 years and nine months old, which is hardly ancient. The man keeps his body in top shape; he even sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber to keep his body healthy.
Age spares no one. A position player's prime statistical years are the mid-to-late twenties. That doesn't mean he disappears into a puff of smoke when he turns thirty, but it means that lesser production is more likely than not.
Tulowitzki's numbers are down this year. Not apocalyptically down, and they are depressed by a slow start to the year, but the warning signs are there. He has the worst strikeout and walk rates of his career. He has the lowest slugging percentage of his career (well, he did before his monster debut for the Jays...). Of course, he was still an All-Star and is still the best shortstop in the game for the rest of the year. And probably for the rest of 2016 too.
But we've already decided that 2015 is a bust, and 2016 isn't likely to be much better either. What will Tulo be in 2017, at age 32? Probably still good; maybe still great. Or maybe he will lose a step. For the first time in his career his defensive numbers are pedestrian instead of stellar. He has looked better as the year has gone on, but again, he's a big-body shortstop who is on the wrong side of 30 and has a history of leg injuries. Hoping he maintains his MVP-caliber performance as he ages is a big gamble; the only reason to make that gamble is if you're in win-now mode. The Rockies are not in win-now mode.
And finally, a corollary point:
4. If Tulo got injured again, or his age-related decline was steep, the Rockies would be extra screwed
The return for Tulo feels light; Hoffman is a top-50 prospect, Castro has a huge arm, and you can dream a little bit on Tinoco, but neither of those guys is a can't-miss future ace. And when you're dealing a player as talented as Tulo, you feel like you should get a huge haul back. But light return or not, these could be really quality players.
But remember last year? It was a chilly night in Pittsburgh, and Tulo slapped a routine ground ball to short, got thrown out by fifteen steps at first base, and grabbed his hip while limping off to the dugout. A few days later doctors performed invasive hip surgery on him. There was no guarantee he would ever be the player he used to be.
You get my point. Tulowitzki was and is injury prone. Maybe he'll never have another serious injury on the baseball field again. But had the Rockies hung on to him, and he had blown out another hip in August, it would have been catastrophic. At that point the Rockies never would have gotten off to the fresh start they so desperately need. Obviously we are in the land of hypotheticals here, but if Tulowitzki had gotten hurt again, Colorado never would have gotten anything more than pennies on the dollar in trade. And hanging on to him, at $20 million per year, watching his slow or rapid decline, wouldn't have done anyone any favors.
The Rockies got three strong pitching prospects from the Tulo trade. Jose Reyes will play a competent shortstop for the Rockies this fall, or they will trade him for another quality prospect in August. Either way, the club is out from under $100 million for Tulo's post-30s years. The Rockies didn't hang on to him too long, like they did with Garrett Atkins, and Brad Hawpe, and maybe even Todd Helton. Keeping Tulo would be to hang on to a time bomb; maybe it wouldn't go off, but maybe it would.
I hope Tulowitzki has a bunch more 7 WAR seasons ahead of him. I hope he leads the Blue Jays to a World Series. I hope he plays so well that in 2030 he gets a Hall of Fame plaque, with a Rockies hat perched on his bronze head.
But even if all those things happen, this was the perfect time to trade him. Jeff Bridich is a cool customer; he made the hard choice, and I applaud him. It might work out, it might not. But the process was sound, and I have more faith in the health of this franchise now than I did a week ago.